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Duly Noted

Thursday, Jun 21, 2012, 9:43 pm

Anne-Marie Slaughter Has It All

By Lindsay Beyerstein

New America Foundation, Creative Commons.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently stepped down as director of policy planning at the State Department, has a long article in the Atlantic entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," about why she decided to leave Washington and return to academia in New Jersey because she preferred living in the same state as her teenage sons.

Slaughter liked being a high-powered academic better than being a high-powered civil servant. I bet I would, too. And I don't even have kids! But because this is the Atlantic, Slaughter's inability to do the impossible has been recast as a failure of feminism.

Slaughter alleges that feminism has misled young women into thinking they can have children and an elite career. This is the latest in a string of Atlantic articles blaming feminism for sexism. Talk about counterintuitive! Or, it would be, if that weren't such a saleable message.

Slaughter's essay even sparked a front page story in the New York Times about how elite women are protesting their ongoing second-class citizenship, even within the halls of power.

"Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?" asks The Times' Jodi Kantor, seemingly missing all of Slaughter's points. 

Slaughter's essay is really about the need for systemic workplace reforms to open up elite positions to women, whom she assumes will always feel disproportionately responsible for childcare. Her structural critique is well-taken. But this issue of the Atlantic is flying off the shelves because of Slaughter's personal story. People want to read about the feminist "apostate" who tried to have it all and failed. By putting her own anomalous story front-and-center, Slaughter undercuts her critique.

By any reasonable standard, Anne Marie Slaughter had it all and still does. She was deputy secretary of policy planning for two years, and then she "scaled back" to her old job as tenured professor at Princeton, prominent public intellectual, and author of academic books. She went home to a stellar career and, presumably, egalitarian co-parenting.

Slaughter is a shining feminist success story. She was able to put in two years in Washington because her husband stepped up to be the primary caregiver to the couple's two sons. She wasn't stymied by lack of childcare, or relegated to a pink collar ghetto. Slaughter says she left, not because she couldn't do the job, nor because her sons were being neglected, but rather because she wanted to live at home while they were young.

If the numbers are any indication, most of her predecessors made similar decisions. Two years is a pretty typical stint for a director of policy planning, a job that makes a Big Law partnership look like a sinecure. Few previous directors of policy planning, all of whom were men, served more than two years, and some didn't even last that long.

Slaughter sets the bar for "having it all" so ridiculously high that, arguably, no human being has ever "had it all" because of the finite number of hours in a day, and days in a childhood. If you have to work 16 hours a day and commute between DC and New Jersey every weekend, then there are fewer hours left to parent, or do anything else. It's not sexism, it's arithmetic.

Of course, "having it all" is a dumb frame to begin with, as Rebecca Traister argues at Salon. Nobody asks whether men can combine high-powered careers and families. It's taken as their due.

Slaughter is right that workplace culture is stacked against anyone who wants to be both a high-achiever and a present parent. As E.J. Graff writes in the Prospect:

When I talk to friends who’ve just had children, here’s what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right, so don’t blame yourself when you’re failing. You’ll always be failing at something—as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling. Slaughter’s entire article is worth reading for her nuanced exploration of that alone. It's true for people at the top; it's even more  true for people at the bottom, who have no sick leave, no choice in their shifts, no freedom to run over to the school if a child is sick.

The best part of Slaughter's essay is the section where she lists the various bits of pragmatic advice that women are given about balancing work and family, on the assumption that if they can just make the right choices, everything will work out for them. Slaughter goes on to explain why those tips aren't enough.

Ambitious women are told that they should choose a husband who will do his share of housework and childcare; they are advised to time their pregnancies for maximum professional advantage; and so on. Slaughter argues that no amount of grit and planning by individuals will overcome the systemic barriers. More comprehensive change is needed.

The practical tips that Slaughter scrutinizes remind me of the simplistic advice that conservatives often give poor people about how to "bootstrap" themselves: Study hard, marry the right person, delay childbearing, get a scholarship.... The problem is that even if everybody followed that advice, poverty wouldn't go away. If there are only so many scholarships to go around, only a handful of people can escape by winning them. If there aren't enough jobs for everyone, exhorting everyone to get a job is pointless.

By the same token, if most men aren't willing to do their fair share of childcare, only a handful of ambitious women will manage to find one of these rare mates. Until cultural mores change on a broad scale, there will never be enough enlightened men to go around. Until workplace policies become more flexible, only a few lucky women will have the opportunities that men take for granted.

Until we rein in the culture of performative workaholism--where showing up counts for more than producing--we'll continue to reward people who have a full-time support network at home (paid or unpaid) and a philosophy of parenting that excuses their absence.

I'm somewhat annoyed with Slaughter's unexamined assertion that women in high-powered jobs are always going to be less comfortable than their male counterparts about delegating hands-on parenting to a partner.

I say "unexamined" because she doesn't want to challenge the gendered double standards that require women to justify any deviation from the breast-feeding-baby-wearing-organic-food-pureeing-soccermoming ideal. In the old days, it was considered perfectly adequate, indeed ideal, to have one hands-on parent and one bread-winning parent. Yet, somehow the standards have shifted. It's never good enough for the woman to occupy the breadwinning role and delegate the hands-on parenting.

By positing that women are always going to be more conflicted than their male counterparts, without considering the unequal and unfair pressures on women, Slaughter is perpetuating the cycle of sexism: Women who do feel guilty will be less likely to reexamine their assumptions, and women who don't will be less likely to share their perspective (and thereby challenge our assumptions) for fear of being considered unnatural.

Without systemic change, rich white men will continue to benefit disproportionately from the status quo, and the rest of society will continue to suffer because a narrow range of people are making all the important decisions, while equally qualified but less privileged people are shut out.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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